Hollywood Gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper Returns to the Screen in Trumbo

Famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by actress Helen Mirren, is starring in the new movie Trumbo. Directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston, the film is about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist in Hollywood during the Cold War. Hopper is featured in the film as Trumbo’s political nemesis, as indeed she was. Rather than dismissing the conservative, anticommunist Hopper as “a crank” who engaged in “pinko purges”—as did earlier portrayals—the film takes her formidable role in mid-20th century American popular and political culture seriously.

Whether known as the “duchess of dish” or a “gargoyle of gossip,” Hedda Hopper was a powerhouse of Hollywood’s golden age. For 27 years, beginning in 1938, she wrote her movie gossip column. Her mass media gossip—or as she put it “snooping and scooping”—drew over 30 million readers to her column at its height in the 1950s. As a gossip, she publicized information about private lives. She focused mostly on the big stars, their movies and marriages, their secrets and scandals. But what made Hopper most stand out from the crowd of celebrity journalists—apart from her famous, flamboyant hats—was her political coverage and political conservatism.

Hopper excelled at a style and practice of journalism that blurred public and private, politics and entertainment and set the context for our current era. By combining and wielding gossip about the worlds of both entertainment and politics, Hopper inserted celebrity into her coverage of politics and politics into her coverage of celebrities. Her insertions took the form of today’s sound bites—simple morsels for immediate consumption. But making information entertaining simplifies the political debate and obscures the political issues. Hopper would have been very comfortable with our historical moment where politicians and celebrities are interchangeable, and personal attacks and character assassinations are a regular part of political discourse.

Hopper used her journalistic platform to promote her conservative politics and traditional values. She attacked members of the film industry who departed from her political views and moral standards, and mobilized her readers into letter-writing campaigns and movie boycotts. Always a proud member of the Republican Party, she sought to build opposition to the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern manners and morals. Her highest priority, however, was fighting against Communism at home and abroad. For decades, Hopper busied herself with “exposing Reds in the name of patriotism.” By publicizing the Communist beliefs of members of the film industry, she violated their civil liberties and the right to keep their political affiliations private. But private information was her currency in the gossip trade.

One of her most prominent targets was Dalton Trumbo. She could not understand why a successful screenwriter like Trumbo, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, “could be a Commie.” Once the blacklist was established in late 1947, with Trumbo on it, Hopper felt it was not enough and demanded further blacklisting. In 1950, Hopper accused MGM of continuing to employ Trumbo under a pseudonym, a warning to other studios to maintain the blacklist. Hopper continued to monitor Trumbo’s career and put pressure on those protecting him. When Trumbo received screen credit for Spartacus (1960), effectively breaking the blacklist, Hopper strongly objected. “The script was written by a Commie,” she wrote, “so don’t go to see it.”

The establishment of the Hollywood blacklist in late 1947 signaled the stifling of social criticism and political dissent in Cold War America. As the new movie Trumbo makes clear, Hedda Hopper helped make this so.

Jennifer Frost is Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of Hedda Hopper’s Holywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (NYU Press, 2011) and An Interracial Movement of the Poor Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (NYU Press, 2005).

3nder and the Threesome Imaginary

—Mimi Schippers

unnamedThere is a new app for hooking up, and it is marketed as a tool for finding “…kinky, curious and openminded singles and couples around you.” It’s called 3nder (pronounced thrinder), and according to a recent New York Post article, it is “built for threesomes.”

Riffing on of the wildly successful Grindr and Tinder, CEO Dimo Trifonov said that he came up with the idea because his girlfriend “confessed an attraction to women.” Here is how the app is described in a press release:

Our perception of love is evolving beyond social norms. 3nder helps singles and couples open up to their sexualities, elevated away from social pressure. It is a place where humans do not have to abide by the artificial rules of an ageing morality. It gives curious couples and singles a beautiful space to show their true selves, explore their sexualities, and discover like-minded humans.

It is true that in a mononormative world—one in which the monogamous couple is the only legitimate way to do emotional and sexual intimacy, sex is supposed to involve a twosome, not a threesome—that is two and only two people. Three in the bed (or on the floor or in the park) is outside of mainstream ideas of “normal” sex. In this way, threesomes do push against social norms.

However, if we look closer at what I call “the threesome imaginary,” or the fantasy of threesomes presented to us through on-line discussions of 3nder, those pesky social norms and social pressures are not so easily expunged.

For instance, reports about 3nder provide a consistent picture of what we mean by threesomes. According to Gabe Stutman, the app is perfect for “those seeking out novel sexual experiences.” As described on the iTunes website, 3nder is “about feeling comfortable with your curiosity about sexuality.”

Presented as a “novel experience,” or a “curiosity,” threesomes are constructed as a temporary suspension of normalcy.

What is this implied “normal?”

The Couple. Rather than challenge our perception of love as promised in the press release, threesomes are presented as something couples do to take a temporary walk on the wild side together. Couples, and the singles they invite in, are what define a threesome.

Moreover, according to representations of 3nder threesomes, the couple is heterosexual and the person invited into their bed is a woman. Trifonov, remember, came up with the idea for the app because his girlfriend wanted to have sex with a woman. The photo accompanying the New York Post article depicts a young, conventionally attractive man flanked on both sides by two young women. An article about the app on Salon.com includes a photo of a man and two women as does the one on Cosmopolitan’s website.

An article posted on Vice Channel’s Motherboard begins with an anecdote about two 27-year old women who used the app to search for a single guy with whom they could have a threesome. The photo features–you guessed it–a man between two women. The only article about 3nder that I could find that did not include an image of two women and a man is on the Huffington Post website. That image shows three men.

Where are the threesomes that include two men and one woman? If the couple using 3nder is heterosexual, according to media representations of threesomes, inviting another man into the mix is not a part of 3nder’s new world of love “beyond social norms.”

The reasons for this omission are many and, as I argue in Beyond Monogamy, most of them revolve around protecting hetero-masculinity from any queer threats that might come from the poly margins. There is no scenario in the mainstream threesome imaginary where a woman in a heterosexual couple gets to watch some boy-on-boy action between her husband or boyfriend and another guy, and there certainly is no room in hetero-masculinity for getting it on with another man while a wife or girlfriend watches. In other words, the implicit message conveyed by these articles (but not by 3nder) is that 3nder is there to fulfill every straight guy’s fantasy—a threesome with two women.

Also missing are black or brown people, for only images of white bodies accompany discussions of 3nder. According to these representations, there are no black or brown, let alone interracial 3nder threesomes. In other words, not only does the threesome imaginary preserve the couple and hetero-masculinity, it also conflates whiteness with sexiness, sexual subjectivity, and erotic adventure as harmless fun.

Despite the implicit messages about gender and race conveyed through internet reporting about 3nder, I’m enthusiastic about the potentialities of 3nder. I think there is potential for threesomes and other forms of poly sex and relationships to shake up social norms about love and relationships. My enthusiasm, however, is cautious. Unless we re-write our narratives about what a threesome looks like, we’re bound to follow the same race and gender “rules of an old morality” that 3nder promises to help us all overcome.

Mimi Schippers is Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is author of Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities (NYU Press, forthcoming 2016) and Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock.

My trigger-warning disaster: “9 1/2 Weeks,” “The Wire” and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong

—Rani Neutill

About a year ago I was asked to teach a class about the evolution of the representation of sex throughout American Cinema. I started with the silent film (The Cheat) and ended with Spike Jonze’s disembodied sex in Her. Along the way, I showed a number of sexually graphic films that caused a great deal of controversy.

At the time I was teaching the course, I was also figuring out a life outside of academia. I had been a wandering postdoc for a long time and was tired. A friend of mine had recently been violently sexually assaulted. I was a witness. The trauma she suffered, from the assault and the long, drawn-out trial of her assailants, led me to volunteer at my local rape crisis center. Working directly with folks who have experienced trauma, I entered the course believing in trigger warnings and gave them throughout the class, even though it seemed as though the title of the course was a trigger warning in and of itself. Regardless, I gave them for almost every film I showed. I even gave them for films that really shouldn’t have needed them (i.e., Psycho).

Midway through the semester, because of my work in sexual assault prevention, I was asked to fill in for the Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services at the university. The Director had to take a short leave so I was there to fill in temporarily. In accepting the position, I took on a dual role. First, I was an activist against sexual violence, supporting survivors on campus, but I was also an educator who believed that learning is about shaking up one’s world and worldview. I didn’t realize that occupying both roles at once would be impossible; failure was inevitable.

The first  “uh-oh” moment came when was when I taught Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Rock Hudson plays the role of a womanizer (the irony of all this, of course, is that he was closeted). When he gets women into his home there are a series of “booby traps” meant for getting it on (who says that anymore? me). One seemed like a literal trap–the door locks itself shut. I suggested that this might be a predatory act. The class was suddenly divided–there were the ones who vehemently believed that Hudson’s character was a rapist, and those who vehemently argued that he was not. This divide would get deeper and uglier throughout the semester, with me caught irrevocably in the middle. 

Next, I assigned a reading by Linda Williams, a chapter from her book, Screening Sex.It looked in intimate detail at the first blaxploitation film ever made– Melvin Van Peebles’, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (SSBAS). The chapter outlined (with pictures), the plot of the movie and all the sexual acts that were in the film. Williams’ argument is that Blaxploitation and SSBAS arose from a reclamation of masculinity by black men who were historically emasculated and castrated (think of the killing of Emmett Till).

I assumed everyone had done the reading. I showed one of the scenes that Williams’ writes about in detail. Before I screened it, I gave a warning, indicating that it was one of the disturbing scenes to which Williams refers. The scene shows a young Sweetback (played by the director’s son Melvin Van Peebles) having sex with a 30-year old woman. She finds him irresistible and thus starts the hyper-sexual evolution of Sweetback–every woman on earth wants to fuck him, including a whole bunch of white women. This, of course, is statutory rape.  When the lights went on and the scene was over, two students left the room in tears. I was perplexed. I started to ask questions about Williams’ reading, how it felt to read about and then watch the scene, what questions of race and masculinity it provoked. Crickets man, crickets. Clearly no one had done the reading.

Later that day, I had a white female student come to my office hours crying. Between picking up tissues and blowing her nose she said, “I’m doing a minor in African American Studies. How could your first images of black people be that horrible?” I told her that I understood her concerns. I went on to explain how the class was a historical look at sex on screen and as the reading for the class articulated, it was one of the first film’s to show black people having sex and was important to film history. She still didn’t get it. She said I had to show some positive images, otherwise it was unfair, that the other students weren’t African American Studies minors so they didn’t understand race politics as she did. I told her that I would bring a positive image to the next class to address her concerns. Finally, she smiled.

That night I went home and thought about it, hard. Isn’t confronting difficult issues what learning is about? My classes were about race, gender, and sexuality. These are inherently uncomfortable topics that force students to think critically about their privilege and their place in the hierarchy of this world.

It’s not fun to talk about inequality. It’s not fun to talk about slavery. It’s not fun to talk about the complexity of sexual desire. It’s terribly, terribly, uncomfortable. But it was my job as their teacher to navigate through this discomfort. I felt like I handled the class poorly. I had kowtowed too much, so I went to class the next day prepared to break this shit down.

I also thought about a positive image of black sexuality and sex. I decided to show a clip from The Wire that shows Omar in bed with his boyfriend just after having sex, a tender moment where they kiss. Omar’s character, a black, gay dude who steals from drug dealers, is a revolutionary representation of black masculinity that stands in stark contrast to SSBAS.  I was excited to show it. I mean, it’s The Wire: who doesn’t want to talk about The Wire?

I began class by talking briefly about learning through discomfort. The students were silent. I turned to them for questions about moments of feeling uncomfortable and how we could read these as productive. The student who came to my office raised her hand and asked, “Are we gonna talk about SSBAS.”

“Yes,” I said, “but I want us to talk about any of the films that made people uncomfortable. Let’s discuss the discomfort.” Her face fell. She started crying and ran out of the room. Her friend followed her. Right after she left I showed the scene with Omar. Later that day, she came to my office again, sobbing.

For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t “out” survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show. This took all the free form and off the cuff ability to teach. It stifled the teaching process. There would never be a moment for me to educate them by confronting them with the unknown, by helping them become aware of their own biases by making them feel uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, I did it. Each night I sent a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included. My role as a sexual assault prevention services specialist and survivor advocate eclipsed my role as a professor as I tried to accommodate students over and over again.

The next film to piss them all off was 9 1/2 Weeks. The film is about a S&M relationship between a character played by Micky Rourke and one played by Kim Basinger.  At first Basinger’s character is drawn to Rourke and they begin an S&M style consensual relationship. As the film goes on, Rourke becomes abusive and the sex becomes non-consensual, but the beauty of the film is that Basinger is eventually able to let go and take something from the relationship–a heightened sense of her sexuality and desires. There’s an infamous scene with Rourke feeding Basinger a number of food items while she’s blindfolded. It’s basically a series of soft core money shots. It is a consensual scene. When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, “no—it is clearly not consensual.” Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated.

This triggered me. I was furious.

Sexual assault survivor support is about empowerment. The model says, “Hey! It’s not for you to tell the survivor what happened to them; that’s their story, they know, don’t fucking label it.” What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that. Their frontal lobes haven’t even fully developed. 

I was done with it. I was drained. I was anxious. I was tired. I was fed up.  But I didn’t want to be. I had been teaching for ten years with passion.

I went to get advice from a colleague in the department. He listened and said that during that time of the semester, students tended to get testy. He thought it was seasonal. I asked him if he ever had such a hard time with his students and he said, “No, I am an old white dude, I really think that as a young woman of color they probably just aren’t afraid of you, they see you as a peer.” For the record, I’m not that young but he may have been right. And here’s the irony, all of the students who were upset were the feminists, the activists, and there they were, treating a woman of color professor like she wasn’t an authority while treating old white dudes like they are.

There has been a lot written about triggering and trigger warnings, discussions about how triggers are often not explicit references to one’s traumatic experiences. Smells, tastes, different objects, they can all be triggering. Think of Proust’s madeleine and the surge of memories about his mother. Memory, emotional trauma, grief and healing are complicated and unique to an individual’s experience. Blanket trigger warnings treat them as impersonal predictable entities. The current movement of calling for trigger warnings prioritizes the shielding of students from the traumatic, whereas, ironically, so many other therapeutic models focus on talking through and confronting trauma as a mode of healing.

Recent work by Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt looks in depth at this phenomenon, the call for safe spaces and trigger warnings. Their tone could be read as condescending to people who are survivors of trauma, but I do think they raise a number of important points.  Similarly, the work of Laura Kipnis on trigger warnings is crucial and illuminating, but in an unfortunate and sometimes typical academic fashion, it can be snobbish and dismissive (Jack Halberstam is also in this camp). Here lies the problem. Taking a tone like that just pisses students off even more. I’m not saying that if we said these things nicely, students would suddenly get it; they won’t. I am living proof of that. I’m just pointing out the fact that putting on an academic face of elite speak isn’t helping either. Maybe pointing out the horrifying political stance these students are making would be more effective.

When a Duke Student refuses to read a book because it has lesbian sex in it and students who are liberal, who are activists, also refuse to read and watch things because they see it as triggering, we see the collusion of the right and left wing. When I get an evaluation from this course that says, “as a white male heterosexual I felt unsafe in this course,” and another that reads, “as a survivor this course was traumatizing,” we are at a moment that needs some radical re-thinking. Do students of a radical nature think that if they are seeing eye to eye with the most extreme conservative element of the population that they are doing something right? Fighting for something positive? Participating in something different?

I don’t have the answers. Hell, I gave up on the whole thing. This was the last straw for me. I didn’t know the answers but I knew this was a crisis. Colleges are the new helicopter parents, places where the quest for emotional safety and psychic healing leads not to learning, but regression.

I don’t know about trigger warnings outside classes that deal with race, gender and sexuality, but I do know that if you promote trigger warnings in subjects that are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, you’re basically promoting a culture of extreme privilege, cause I’m pretty sure that the trans women who are being murdered weekly, the black men who are victims of police brutality daily, and the neighborhoods in America that are plagued by everyday violence, aren’t given any trigger warnings. Let’s be honest: life is a trigger.

Rani Neutill is a Student at The Startup Institute; Server at the Miracle of Science; Volunteer at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center; Writer, recovering academic, surviving feminist, and Baltimore City lover. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

[This piece originally appeared in Salon.]

Charles Lee and Hamilton: He’s a General, Wheee!

—Phillip Papas

Prior to 2013, there had not been much mention of General Charles Lee in the narrative of the American Revolution. Lee is everywhere now. He appears in the AMC series TURN, in the Outlander novel My Own Heart’s Blood, in the video game Assassins Creed III, and in two biographies, including Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014). Lee also emerges in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the other revolutionaries who forged the American nation.

While Lee has become more visible in popular culture and in scholarship, his image as a debauched, cowardly malcontent has remained. Miranda’s Lee continues this trend.

In Act I of Hamilton, Washington’s bedraggled Continentals retreat across New Jersey in 1776. The commander-in-chief hopes to defeat the British through small-scale, risk-averse, skirmishes. “There’s only one way for us to win this, Provoke outrage, outright,” Washington tells his protégé Hamilton. “Don’t engage, strike by night. Remain relentless ’til their troops take flight,” he continues. “Hit ’em quick, get out fast.” (“Stay Alive”) Yet among the Continental officers, Charles Lee was the most consistent and articulate proponent of this kind of strategy, urging Washington to avoid conventional battles in favor of irregular warfare (or petite guerre). However, Lee advised organizing the army along the lines of a national militia, dividing it into small detachments that would coordinate with local partisans to harass the British flanks, cut their supply lines, disrupt communications, and ambush isolated patrols and outposts.

The realization of Lee’s strategy meant fighting a wholly different war than that envisioned by Washington and other Continental officers, including Hamilton. Their view supported a Continental Army comprised of long-term volunteers that avoided large-scale battles in favor of smaller conventional operations before withdrawing from the field, a strategy Washington effectively applied at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776-1777. Washington, Hamilton, and others understood that for the Revolution to succeed the army had to remain intact. Nevertheless, Lee’s advocacy of petite guerre reminds us that Washington’s was not the only view on how to fight and win the war held by the revolutionaries.

Lee was the most experienced soldier appointed by the Continental Congress in June 1775. Yet he accepted the position as the third general in rank behind Washington and Artemas Ward, becoming second-in-command upon the latter’s resignation in April 1776. He also impressed his American contemporaries with his intellect and cosmopolitanism, attributes that are overlooked in Miranda’s musical and by historians. On December 13, Lee was captured by British cavalry at a tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Exchanged in 1778, he rejoined the Continental Army at the Valley Forge encampment. But Lee soon learned that the army had changed considerably during his captivity as had the politics of Congress and of Washington’s headquarters.

Thanks to the training program of the Prussian officer the Baron von Steuben, Washington’s troops emerged from Valley Forge confident they could succeed in a large-scale conventional battle. That opportunity arrived in June 1778 near Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. Lee, in command of the advance corps, faced stiff resistance from the British rearguard. His lines disintegrated. Facing potential annihilation, Lee ordered a general retreat. “Ev’ryone attack!” Washington bellows. (“Stay Alive”) Lee replies “Retreat!” Irate to find Lee’s troops retreating, Washington publicly rebuked him. “What are you doing, Lee? Get back on your feet!” To which a cowardly Lee responds: “But there’s so many of them!”

The battle of Monmouth ended in a draw and Lee’s performance would have been considered unworthy of further admonishment had he not criticized the commander-in-chief in the press. “Washington cannot be left alone to his devices. Indecisive, from crisis to crisis,” Lee declares bitterly. He demanded a court-martial. Washington obliged.

The court-martial found Lee guilty of misconduct and disrespect and suspended him for a year. Lee again turned to the press to defend his actions at Monmouth, to criticize Washington, and to denounce a narrative of the battle crafted by Hamilton, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette. “Many men died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous,” Hamilton asserts. He “shits the bed at the Battle of Monmouth” the three men exclaim while “a thousand soldiers die in a hundred degree heat” (Laurens). Washington snatches “a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.” (Lafayette)

Lee’s rage against Washington led to a duel with Laurens in December 1779. “Laurens, do not throw away your shot,” Hamilton advises his friend (“Stay Alive”). Lee, Laurens, Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, who supported Lee during the court-martial, use verse to recite the code duello (“Ten Duel Commandments”). Here Miranda foreshadows the 1804 Burr-Hamilton duel that ended Hamilton’s life. “Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?” Burr asks Hamilton. “Sure,” he responds, “But your man [Lee] has to answer for his words.” Laurens ultimately wounded Lee.

While it was easy to criticize Lee, the fact is he continued to have the respect of several revolutionaries including Aaron Burr, General Nathanael Greene, and the future U. S. president James Monroe, among others. Had Lee not ordered a retreat at the battle of Monmouth, the British would have decimated the Continentals before Washington’s arrival. Moreover, Lee has rarely been credited with delaying the British long enough for Washington to establish his main line of defense. By ordering a retreat, Lee drew the enemy into an unfavorable position by the time the commander-in-chief appeared and helped to save the Continental Army from a potentially devastating defeat. It was only Lee’s disrespect for Washington that ultimately ended his military career, not his performance on the battlefield.

Phillip Papas is Senior Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. He is the author of That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2007) and Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014), which earned Honorable Mention for the 2015 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.

Yelp for Peeple and the Right to be Forgotten

—Meg Leta Jones

A few weeks ago the Internet became very upset about Peeple, or “Yelp for people.” Co-founder Julia Cordray explained to the Washington Post, “People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions. Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of life?”

Why not do the same kind of research that we do on cars on people?

Peeple’s future is not looking bright, but assume that Yelp for humans develops in one form another in the future. Should people be able to edit others’ entries? Yelp would be entirely useless if companies could edit user comments, though reliability is certainly questionable. It would be strange if car manufacturers were able to edit the Kelley Blue Book rating?

People find it offensive to be equated to cars. So offensive that we have laws that distinguish the treatment of people from the treatment of cars. For instance, you will get in less trouble for kicking a car than a person. But, should the law distinguish between people and cars online, where it is all just bits?

More and more countries are extending special treatment to humans as they exist online through data protection rights like the right to be forgotten. The U.S. is not one of them, a distinction that is part of a growing rift between America and Europe. In Ctrl+Z, the nitty gritty details of this ongoing, complicated debate are hashed out, organized, and analyzed in a global context.

Meg Leta Jones is an assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology department where she researches and teaches in the area of technology law and policy. Her book, Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten, will be published in May 2016 by NYU Press.

The Founders Chic of Hamilton

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 2.25.41 PM—Andrew M. Schocket

Hamilton is the hottest ticket on Broadway.  Anyone who’s been lucky enough to see it or hear it (here’s the soundtrack, for now) knows it’s thrilling.  But Founders Chic, the recent worshiping of our illustrious nation-building heroes, has little to do with its success.

Hamilton portrays the founders as strivers, especially immigrant Alexander Hamilton, who arrived from the Caribbean with almost nothing, and rose to marry one of the brightest (and wealthiest) women in New York, become George Washington’s right-hand man, one of the co-authors of The Federalist, the inventive first Secretary of the Treasury, and the central figure of the nation’s first major sex scandal, all before his death at age 49 in a duel by the hand of a longtime rival, the country’s sitting vice president. All promising dramatic material.

Nonetheless, Hamilton’s inventive lyrics, catchy melodies, non-stop references to contemporary culture, brilliant rhyme, fine dancing, top-notch singing, and dramatic talent are what make this show such a joy.  Those elements, far more than it’s being about a founding figure per se, is why Hamilton is a smash.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as an historian following Founders Chic, it’s that commercial productions that celebrate our founding generation work like any other content: they only succeed if they’re good and fit into the their medium snugly.  Sure, David McCullough’s John Adams book sold over a million copies—but McCullough is one of our grandest storytellers, author of a half-dozen other prize-winning best-sellers.  Mel Gibson’s entertaining The Patriot made money at the box office, while Al Pacino’s gritty but confusing Revolution was a dud.

The reason why Hamilton is so remarkable is not that the world has been craving a hip-hop rendition of the man on the $10 dollar bill.  The 1997 Broadway revival of the early 1970s musical 1776, which campily tells the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, limped through a year of lackluster attendance.  Other American political figures have fared worse: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a favorably-reviewed musical on the life of our seventh president, was a commercial failure five years ago.

Rather, Hamilton accomplishes what its best musical predecessors do, only a little differently: spin a strong story, with a marvelous book and hummable music, in the great Broadway tradition.  It re-energizes the form of the musical by injecting it with hip-hop.  Hamilton references previous such reinvigorations, including what the Berlin brothers and Cole Porter did with jazz, Leonard Bernstein did with classical music, and Bob Fosse did with the incorporation of new dances styles.  And if you listen to Hamilton’s soundtrack, you’ll hear a book that, hip hop references aside, would make any Stephen Sondheim aficionado smile knowingly.

Still, a musical bio about a nobody who marries well and entrances a nation, that’s new, right?  Not if you’ve seen Evita, about Eva Peron.  Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, credits the mind behind that musical, Andrew Lloyd Weber, as one of his major influences.  And Hamilton goes further back than that: it includes nods to the 20th-century American team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and even to Gilbert and Sullivan, the late-19th-century British opera-writing duo who helped to meld opera and the popular stage.  It’s not American Revolutionary history that makes Hamilton rollicking fun: it’s Manuel’s melding of musical history.

And that’s one of the lessons to be learned from Hamilton’s triumph.  Not all musicals are created equal: to make a great one, you’ve got to meld words, music, and talent into a more perfect union of words, music, and talent.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015) and Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia.

Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails

—Philip Nel

Few things upset American adults more than books for children and adolescents. If you look at the American Library Association’s annual list of Challenged and Banned Books, the top 10 titles are nearly always those written for or assigned to young people: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. On those rare occasions when the books are not intended for school-age readers or given as homework, they’re on the list because young people are reading them anyway: E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, a favorite target for 2012 and 2013.

Banned and challenged books tell us very little about what is suitable for actual children. Instead, books targeted for censure offer an index of adult fears, reflecting, as David Booth says, “changing ideas about childhood and notions of suitability.”1 Censorship is also transideological, advocated by people of many political persuasions. Progressive censors seek to scrub away racism from Doctor Dolittle and Huckleberry Finn, creating Bowdlerized editions of the books. Conservative censors wish to protect children from knowledge of the human body: as a result, Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health frequently lands on the ALA’s Challenged-and-Banned Books list.

While censorship will not keep young people safe, censors and would-be censors are right about two things. First, books have power. Second, responsible adults should help guide young people through the hazards of the adult world.

However, like all attempts to safeguard children’s innocence, removing books from libraries and curricula are not only doomed to failure; they are an abdication of adult responsibility and, as Marah Gubar writes of associating innocence with childhood, “potentially damaging to the wellbeing of actual young people.”2 A responsible adult recognizes that innocence is a negative state — an absence of knowledge and experience — and thus cannot be sustained. Shielding children from books that offer insight into the world’s dangers puts these children at risk. As Meg Rosoff notes, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.”3 Books offer a safe space in which to have conversations about difficult subjects. Taking these books out of circulation diminishes understanding and increases anxiety.

Separating children from books also fails to recognize that peril is not distributed randomly throughout the population, but concentrated in groups identifiable by their members’ race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, or religion. Preventing teenagers from reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings impedes them from learning about what survivors of rape endure, and how peers and teachers might better help them. Blocking children from reading Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three prevents them from understanding that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too. Banning Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers’s Fallen Angels stops readers from discovering how war shapes a young psyche. Prohibiting Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian impedes young people from learning about the hard realities of life on a reservation, and from getting to know the novel’s resilient, funny protagonist. These books provide mirrors for young people of similar backgrounds or experiences, and windows for those of different ones.

Furthermore, preventing children from reckoning with potentially offensive works ill prepares them for the indignities that life will inflict. They should read books that trouble them, and have serious conversations about those books. For example, while Twain was a progressive nineteenth-century white author, if his Huckleberry Finn doesn’t offend contemporary readers, then they’re not reading it carefully enough. It’s not just the repeated use of the n-word, which should make people at least uncomfortable and at most angry (news flash: it was a racial slur in the nineteenth century, too). The portrayal of slave-owning Uncle Silas as a kindly “old gentleman” (Huck calls him “the innocentest, best old soul I ever see”) offers an apology for white supremacy. Assigning Huck Finn provides an occasion not only to talk about a classic American novel, but to teach people how to read uncomfortably, and to cope with experiences that upset them.

Though the motive is protection, restricting access to books hurts the children and teens who need them most. Young readers in vulnerable populations crave stories that help them make sense of their lives. Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk. In any case, children often have experiences that they do not yet have the words to express: reading books can provide them with the words, and help them better understand. As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.… Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to.”4

Young people do want to learn. Concerned adults should acknowledge innocence’s inevitable evaporation, and recognize that the young likely know more than you think they do. So, respect their curiosity. Take their concerns seriously. Let them read. Let them learn.


  1. David Booth, “Censorship,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (NYU Press, 2011), p. 26.
  2. Marah Gubar, “Innocence,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Nel and Paul, p. 122.
  3. Meg Rosoff, “You can’t protect children by lying to them — the truth will hurt less.” The Guardian 20 Sept. 2013: <http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/sep/21/cant-protect-children-by-lying>.
  4. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951; Bantam Books, 1988), p. 189.

Philip Nel has co-edited two books for NYU Press: Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2008, with Julia Mickenberg) and Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011, with Lissa Paul). His most recent books are Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (UP Mississippi, 2012) and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Vol. 1 (1942-1943) and Vol. 2 (1944-1945) (2013 & 2014, both co-edited with Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics). He is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University.

Are Jews Too Sexy for the Censors?

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

Jewish authors are tremendously popular when it comes to banned-books lists. Judy Blume, Lesléa Newman, and Anne Frank are all represented on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Banned Books of 1990-1999 and 2000-2009 lists. These are just a few examples of Jews whose work has been targeted, banned, and even burned in America. All of these women’s ouevres have one thing in common: sex. Sex, along with race and obscenity, is one of the most common rationales presented for banning books. Are Jewish authors too sexy for the library?

It is Banned Books Week, a time to reflect on how censorship has altered the American literary landscape and to take action on freedom of expression. For 2015, the week’s focus is on Young Adult literature: that mildly nebulous, wildly popular genre that crosses between “juvenile” and “mature” literature.

Jews, particularly Jewish women, have been stereotyped as licentious and sexually voracious ever since the nineteenth century brought us notions of the “exotic Jewess,” a seductive, Orientalized creature. More generally, the notion of “carnal Israel,” contrasted with “spiritual” Christianity, dominated many public discussions of Jews. As Josh Lambert argues in Unclean Lips, the very notion of obscene speech in American derives in part from reactions towards Jewish and other writing as insufficiently pure and “American.” Modern Jewish writers and filmmakers have received a disproportionate number of obscenity charges.

Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? caused a stir when it was first published in 1970. Censors charged that the book offends along axes of both sex and religion. On the one hand, Margaret famously discusses menarche with God, asking when she will finally get her first period; she also describes her early, and really quite limited, sexual experiences. At the same time, Margaret faces tensions as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and her Christian grandparents are particularly doctrinaire. As a result, the book was charged with “anti-Christian sentiment.” Blume’s Tiger Eyes, Forever, and Blubber have also been banned, typically for explicit sex scenes or “immoral content.”

Fast-forward two decades to 1989, when Lesléa Newman, an out Jewish lesbian poet and children’s book author, publishes Heather Has Two Mommies, a picture book about a lesbian family. Newman has written about her desire to have all children see their families represented in children’s books; she also connects this longing to her own experience with the lack of Jewish family representations during her youth. In the New York public schools, the book’s inclusion as a suggested reading for the “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum led to public outrage and the downfall of a schools chancellor.

Ironically, it was the protection of children—a very romanticized notion of the marriage as a primarily a venue for procreation—that drove Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bryer’s majority opinion in the very case that legalized marriage equality, just over a quarter century after Newman’s book. Heather Has Two Mommies was re-released just a few months before the decision, with some minor changes. Heather’s mommies now wear matching rings.

Think of the children! This is the double-edged refrain behind both intellectual censorship and legal progress. Both turn upon the notion of young people as innocent blank slates who lack the agency and discernment to make their own sense out of challenging material. This irony is starkest when we consider bans on one of the most popular Jewish authors across the globe, namely: Holocaust victim Anne Frank.

Various edited versions of her journal, usually titled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, have been wildly popular and assigned in American schools since the book was translated into English in 1951. In 2013, the diary was almost removed from the Northville, Michigan. Most bans have stemmed from Frank’s explicit reflections on her emerging sexuality and the changes in her adolescent body. Once again, the Jewish female body is suspect: oversexed, potentially dangerous, and overtly described. Frank’s body is a particularly contested one, as her diary and other portrayals became fast forward forms of hagiography, leading contemporary Americans to resist associations between Frank and sex.

Does the censorship of Jewish-authored books truly stem from old, anti-Jewish caricatures? Is it mere happenstance? The causality is not simple. Intersectional identities cannot be neatly sorted out and untangled. I will say this: these particular Jewish authors do not shirk from our always-embodied lives. They trouble sexual taboos, portray powerful women, and challenge social mores, pushing for social justice in their lives and in their art. Like the much-maligned isha zara—the “foreign woman”—of the book of Proverbs, these women cross boundaries and give us new visions. What some see as transgression, others see as its flip side: wisdom.

Keep writing, Jewish women. Write strong.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University (PA). She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2015).